Best looks

Yesterday a young woman died. Aged just 25, her death was sudden and apparently unexpected; she leaves behind a grieving family, husband and two little boys who aren’t old enough to understand why Mummy isn’t there any more. Her name was Peaches Geldof and she was known as a celebrity, both because of her famous parents and in her own right. Naturally most of the media pounced on the news of her death, interviewing anyone they could find with a vague connection to her and fuelling speculation about how and why she died. The usual ghoulish reaction to a celebrity death was certainly in evidence, with endless stories rehashing her life and career.

At the offices of Cosmopolitan magazine, however, the staff seemed to forget that Ms Geldof had a life and career. In fact they seemed to forget altogether that she was a real, flesh and blood woman with friends and family who are shocked and grieving, and decided that their “tribute” to her would be this:

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Yes, you read that right. A woman has died tragically young, two small boys are motherless and the only thing that Cosmopolitan magazine can think of to say is “We liked her clothes”. What the hell?! In fact they don’t even acknowledge that she was a person at all, merely referring to her as a “fashion world fixture”. Now, a door handle is a fixture. A plug socket is a fixture. A woman is a human being, not a bloody fixture!

Peaches Geldof was a daughter and sister. She was married; she carried and gave birth to two babies who are still too young to understand where their mummy has gone. She had hopes, dreams, a career and aspirations. She loved and was loved in return. She laughed, she cried, she had happy days and sad days. She was like every other woman and she was worth far more than merely the fabric with which she covered her body! For Cosmopolitan to reduce her to a mere mannequin, a doll whose sole purpose is to be looked at and admired, is insulting not just to Ms Geldof but to the magazine’s readership and indeed, all women.

We live in a society where a woman’s perceived value is mostly based on her appearance. Her height, weight, hair colour, the size of her breasts and length of her legs, as well as many other physical features. You know this, I know this, Cosmopolitan magazine know this. It’s what makes them money, after all. But this shallow, pathetic, dehumanising piece about a woman who’s barely been dead for a day is a new low, and whoever is responsible for it should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

Still helping the hungry

In October last year I wrote about the increasing use of foodbanks in the UK. Sadly this is a problem that isn’t going to go away any time soon; the increase in fuel and food prices and little or no increase in income means that many people are reaching the point where they simply cannot afford to buy enough food. This is exacerbated by changes to the welfare system, where many who rely on benefits to survive are experiencing delays in payments or even having them stopped altogether as a punishment for not being able to jump through all the government’s hoops (this includes the large number of people with disabilities who have been wrongly declared fit for work). Of course it’s not just so-called “scroungers” who are having to attend foodbanks; approximately 50% of UK children living in poverty are from working families.

In the year 2012-2013, approximately 400 foodbanks overseen by the Trussell Trust gave emergency food parcels to 347,000 people, of which 127,000 were children. As if that isn’t shocking enough, in the first 9 months of 2013-2014 they gave food to over 614,000 people. Despite claims by Conservative MPs and peers that the existence of foodbanks creates the demand for their services because people merely want free food (Lord Freud and Lord Tebbit), that people only use them because they cannot manage their finances (Michael Gove), have spent all their money on junk food (Lord Tebbit again) or whether foodbanks are seeing more people because of the drive to reduce food waste (can you explain that one again please Esther McVey?) it is clear that foodbanks are increasingly needed in the UK.

Contrary to the anti-foodbank propaganda, you can’t just turn up to a foodbank and walk off with a box of free food whenever you feel like it. Firstly you have to be identified by a professional (such as a doctor, health visitor or social worker) as being in crisis, after which they issue you with a food voucher. At the foodbank you exchange the voucher for 3 days worth of nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food. You can do this a maximum of 3 times in 6 months. All food is donated by the public, and sorted and distributed by volunteers.

Foodbanks have entered public consciousness. This is good in one way, because it means that those who are in dire need of assistance are likely to get it. However it also means that unscrupulous characters can try to take advantage of their plight. Just today the leader of the far-right British Nationalist Party (BNP) gleefully publicised his new policy of sending canvassers out with bags of food (only for “indigenous Brits” though – presumably those descended from Celts, Romans, Vikings, Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Normans need not expect a knock on the door!).

A short while ago a friend of mine tweeted about an elderly lady she encountered in a supermarket, begging the staff to “lend” her a ready meal as she had no money for food (I don’t know whether or not they did, but my friend and another kindhearted customer paid for giftcards for the staff to pass on to her). This should not be happening. Our elderly, our children, our poor and vulnerable citizens shouldn’t have to rely on charity to survive. This is the UK, we’re one of the richest nations in the world – why are there people starving? Why are teachers and schools having to feed hungry children? Why did that elderly lady feel that she had no option but to swallow her pride and beg in a supermarket?

Our government has spent months denying that there is any link between changes to the welfare system and foodbank usage, even trying to suppress the results of their own investigation when it showed that there was indeed a clear link. Our government has declined millions of pounds of aid from the European Parliament that was specifically intended to help relieve food poverty in the UK. Our government does not care about the poor and the hungry, about those who have to beg for food, who have to go to a foodbank to feed their family (and in some cases return most of the food because they can’t afford the electricity or gas needed to cook it).

But I care. And I’m sure you care too. So let’s do something about this and make our voices heard. Get angry. Write to your MP, your MEP, your council and your local press; sign and share as many relevant petitions as you can find, shout from the rooftops and via social media that this is not right, that this cannot be allowed to continue! Read and share blogs written by people like Jack Monroe, who have experienced this misery firsthand. And of course, find your local foodbank and donate to them. You can search for them online or ask at your local church, GP surgery or community centre. The Trussell Trust aren’t the only people to run foodbanks in the UK; FareShare do as well and so do many churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Whether you donate food, your time as a volunteer, or money so that they can keep working, please give what you can. Your help, your voice, your anger and your donations, are all desperately needed.

UPDATE 16th April 2014
Today the Trussell Trust released figures showing that 913,138 people attended their foodbanks in the year 2013-2014. They run only 37% of foodbanks in the UK; assuming that attendance at the other foodbanks have risen at a similar rate, that’s almost 2.5 million people in the UK who at some point last year were unable to afford food.

My net

Trigger warning: suicide.

For ages now I’ve been pottering along, coping ok with the usual day-to-day stuff and seemingly well thanks to my anti-depressants. Until a few weeks ago, that is. For no discernible reason my mood took a nosedive and I began to have suicidal thoughts for the first time in almost 3 years. I’m not saying that I wanted to kill myself, I didn’t. But thoughts of suicide were continually popping into my head and I found myself dreamily considering ways of ending my life. Needless to say, this terrified me. Which, in a way, was a good sign – when I’ve been truly suicidal these kind of thoughts have been welcome, even comforting. But this time they were intrusive and frightening.

I’m lucky to have a great GP, who managed to squeeze me in at short notice. She listened sympathetically, checking that I felt able to keep myself safe and that I had people I could turn to if that changed. She increased the dosage of my anti-depressants and fired off an urgent referral to the community mental health team (CMHT). Much to my surprise they called me later the same day and offered me an appointment with a mental health nurse the following morning. The appointment went well and the nurse was reassuring. She agreed that I seemed able to keep myself safe despite the suicidal thoughts, and gave me the details of the CMHT helpline in case I started to have difficulties with that. She also referred me back to a psychiatrist for mid-April, just to be on the safe side.

Gradually my mood began to improve, and I went from barely being able to move off the sofa to throwing myself into the housework with an enthusiasm that’s most unlike me! I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts for days now. I’ve seen my GP again and she’s happy that I’m safe and managing far better. For now I’ll continue on the higher dosage of anti-depressants, but if I start to get too high or notice an increase in hypomanic episodes we’ll try lowering it again.

I consider myself to be very lucky. I have nothing but praise for the NHS, my GP and the CMHT, who saw me so swiftly. DH is my rock, and my wonderful sister and parents are supportive. My dear friend Sutton is a treasure beyond compare and I also have some amazing friends on Twitter who, although we’ve never met, are kind and caring and incredibly supportive (you know who you are!). I am so grateful to all these people; for listening and reassuring, and for being the safety net that stopped my headlong plunge into darkness. I really don’t have the words to express how thankful and humbled I am by their love and support, so I’ll just say this, from the bottom of my heart:

Thank you.

On bisexuality

I first realised that I was bisexual in my early teens, although at the time I had no idea that such a thing existed. I just knew that I fancied girls as well as boys. It was confusing and something that I kept to myself as no-one else seemed to be having the same feelings. As I grew older I became more open about my sexuality and had several girlfriends as well as boyfriends before meeting my husband when I was 21. He’s always known of my sexuality and is perfectly comfortable with it – we even have similar taste in women!

Not everyone is so accepting, however. I’ve never told any older relations about my sexuality after having several devastating arguments as a teen with my loudly homophobic grandfather (although obviously, if I had ended up in a long-term relationship with a woman I wouldn’t have hidden it!). I have friends who, although they’ve known me for many years, believe that my relationships with women were a phase and that because I’m in a long-term relationship with a man I’m now heterosexual. This is wrong – if my husband died or we split up I’d be just as likely to be in a relationship with a woman as with a man – but it isn’t an unusual view, sadly.

Being bisexual, in my experience, means facing criticism from all sides. Many people believe that bisexuals are attention-seekers, or just haven’t made up their minds which sex they’re attracted to. It’s also a common belief that bisexuals are gay but in denial (interestingly, I’ve never heard anyone claim that we’re straight but in denial about it). If you’re a young bisexual female then a lot of people assume you’re faking it to attract men – this seems a touch ridiculous until you consider the fetishisation of lesbianism in men’s magazines. I’ve even heard claims that bisexuals are gay but so afraid of our own sexuality that we spend our lives maintaining fake heterosexual relationships. I hesitate to label the antipathy towards bisexuals biphobia, as I feel it comes under the umbrella of homophobia; there’s no doubt that the antipathy exists though. Read this article, for example, recently published in The Spectator. The author (Cosmo Landesman)’s vitriol against bisexuals seems entirely disproportionate to the point he’s apparently trying to make (that we’re not all bisexual – an argument that I mostly agree with) and makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Even in the last few days Mariella Frostrup, acting as agony aunt in a national newspaper, seemed to refer to a woman’s bisexual boyfriend as being undecided when she wrote “If your boyfriend hasn’t yet decided what sex to go for…”. (I tweeted Ms Frostrup about this – she dismissed me as being over-sensitive).

Basically what I want to say is this. Being bisexual doesn’t mean you’re confused, undecided or gay-but-in-denial. It means you’re attracted to both men and women. It’s as simple as that. Some people are only attracted to one sex; some are attracted to both sexes. Some are only attracted to one or two genders, some are attracted to more. Instead of constantly trying to criticise, belittle or second-guess one another why can’t we just accept everyone’s sexuality as being what they say it is?

Is International Women’s Day really necessary?

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. This is an annual event and every year there are people who ask, is it really necessary? Isn’t it sexist to have a day dedicated solely to women? Women have equality, what more do they want? So this year I want to explain why I believe that International Women’s Day is not just necessary but essential.

We live in a world where women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of its food, but earn only 10% of its income and own 1% of its property. This is easy to dismiss as being a problem that’s only relevant to developing countries where manual labour is far more common, but the fact is that even in the UK women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Women are also a rare sight in boardrooms and on the benches of Parliament. We live in a world where the vast majority of lawmakers are male and frequently pass laws restricting the rights a woman has over her own body.

In recent years global awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM – also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting) has increased. This is not a procedure akin to male circumcision, which involves the removal of the foreskin only. FGM involves the removal of part or all of female external genitalia, often without anaesthesia and without any medical need. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of a medical condition that would require a young girl to have her clitoris or labia cut away, or her vagina stitched closed, without anaesthesia or pain relief but this is often the reality. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 140 million women and girls worldwide have suffered FGM. Again, this is easy to dismiss as an issue that only exists elsewhere but it’s estimated that even in the UK 20,000 girls are at risk of FGM every year.

Everywhere we turn, women are objectified and treated as men’s property and sexual playthings. WHO figures show that over a third (35.6%) of women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. In some places girls are more likely to be raped than they are to attend school. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that in England and Wales an average of 85,000 women are raped every year while over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. This is merely the tip of the iceberg as it is believed that there are many cases which are never reported. The Everyday Sexism project has exposed the frighteningly commonplace harassment that women and girls in the UK (there are now Everyday Sexism projects in other countries too) suffer on a daily basis. It makes sobering reading, as does the survey carried out in 2013 by Girl Guiding UK. Shocking statistics from this survey include the fact that 60% of females aged 11-21 have had comments about their appearance shouted at them in school and 62% have been shouted at or whistled at in the street. Even worse, “70 per cent of girls aged 13 and over report more intrusive forms of sexual harassment at school or college, including: sexual jokes or taunts (51 per cent), seeing images of girls or women that made them uncomfortable (39 per cent), unwanted sexual attention (28 per cent) and unwanted touching (28 per cent)”.

It’s not just sexual harassment, assault and rape that women face. Research carried out by the charity Women’s Aid concluded that in the UK an average of 2 women per week are killed by their current or former male partner. According to data gathered by @CountDeadWomen (a valuable and eye-opening project on Twitter) 22 UK women were killed through suspected male violence in the first two months of 2014 (that’s roughly one woman killed every 2.5 days).

I’m not denying that men suffer sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and harassment. Of course they do and these incidents are just as unacceptable as those where women are the victims, but these cases are a very small proportion of the overall figures. Personally I have suffered rape, sexual assault, abuse at the hands of a boyfriend and harassment as I go about my daily life. I don’t want this to be my daughter’s experience; I don’t want her or my son to grow up in a society where the oppression, abuse, harassment and violence that women suffer is so pervasive that to some people it is not only the norm but it is becoming invisible.

(In anticipation of the inevitable comments, yes there is an International Men’s Day; it’s on November 19th. Now read this post again and ask yourself why that was the first thing you thought worthy of a comment).

Sugar and spice and all things nice…

My daughter is 4 years old. Because of her age she receives a free drink of milk at school each day; once she turns 5 DH and I will have to pay if we wish this to continue (only 22p a day as it’s subsidised). I don’t know what the take-up rate for this is but today the company that provides the milk (Cool Milk) held an assembly at the school. From what DD tells me it was a fun assembly with singing and a bit of dancing. At the end of it each child was given a sticker to wear and a booklet was put in their bookbags for them to take home. The booklet had a comic strip in as well as a quiz, poem etc.

However, at the back of the booklet was this:

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Now, you and I know that too much sugar isn’t good for us. And I’m all for encouraging healthy eating in childhood. But do 4 year olds really need to be worried about how much sugar is in their drink? That’s for parents to worry about, surely? As a result of reading this booklet DD is now convinced that consuming sugar will make her fat. DH and I have tried to reassure her, explaining that our bodies need sugar for energy and that some sugar is ok. This is the stance that we’ve always taken, that everything is ok in moderation, but I don’t know whether we’ve reassured her or not.

I’m livid about this. Children live in a society where appearance is valued above all else and this has enough of an impact on them. A survey carried out last year by GirlGuiding UK found that 71% of girls aged 11-21 would like to lose weight and that a fifth (a fifth!) of primary school girls have been on a diet. I have no doubt that similar pressures are felt by boys as well, though probably to a lesser degree. Children need to be encouraged to value who they are as individuals, to value substance over appearance, and yes they do need to learn about healthy, nourishing food. However they do not need to be fretting at the age of 4 about whether what they eat and drink is going to make them fat. They certainly don’t need to be told things like that by a company who are merely trying to increase their profits by encouraging children to keep drinking their milk. (I concede that there may be a genuine desire here to help and educate children stay healthy but my cynicism leads me to suspect that money is the overriding concern).

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that in 2010/11 more than 6,500 children were treated for eating disorders (up from 1,718, in 2007/8). This includes 79 who were less than 10 years old when they began treatment, and 56 children who were aged 5 or under. Of course the causes of eating disorders are many and nuanced, but idiotic marketing ploys like Cool Milk’s certainly aren’t going to help matters.

I appreciate that these children are far from the norm, and I also realise that I may be over-reacting a touch here. But I was one of those children who don’t make it into the HSCIC’s statistics, the ones who have an eating disorder but remain undiagnosed. I’m not sure when it began but I clearly remember secretly bingeing at the age of 7, gorging on any kind of food I could lay my hands on. I also remember tightening the belt on my school dress until I could barely breathe, convinced that I was fat. I don’t want my children to walk the same path as me and if that makes me over-sensitive to things like this booklet then so be it.

Wanna bet?

I love sport. All kinds of sport. Betting companies love it too as it makes them a lot of money: football, rugby, athletics, killing women, darts… Hang on, what? Yes, it seems that the violent death of an unarmed woman is the latest fun event for punters to have a flutter on:

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Irish betting company Paddy Power are using this advert both online and in print media to drum up business. Not only is it distasteful for its not-so-subtle mockery of a double amputee, but it turns the death of Reeva Steenkamp at the hands of Oscar Pistorius into merely another means of making money.

Although Paddy Power are kind enough to refer to Ms Steenkamp by name in their explanation (unlike much of the media, who seem to think her name was “top model” or “Oscar’s girlfriend”) that seems to be the extent of their acknowledgment that she was a human being. The fact that she was a woman with family and friends who mourn her seems to have escaped them entirely. Their greed has blinded them to the horror of the incident they’re profiting from.

When Ms Steenkamp was shot 3 times, I doubt her last thoughts were “Oh well, I may be dying but at least this will make Paddy Power some money”. As she lay dead in a pool of blood on her boyfriend’s bathroom floor, I don’t imagine many people thought “Brilliant! I can turn this into an advertising gimmick!”. As her shocked and grieving family arranged her funeral I’m sure that betting on whether her killer would be convicted wasn’t very high on their list of priorities.

As they seem oblivious to the inappropriateness of their actions, I’d like to point out to Paddy Power and its chief executive Patrick Kennedy that profiting from a woman’s death doesn’t make them marketing geniuses. Begging people to bet on the outcome of her killer’s trial smacks of desperation and voyeurism, not daring and humour. It is a sickening, despicable and mind-bogglingly ill-thought out thing to do.

The very least that Paddy Power should do at this point is void all bets on the matter, apologise unreservedly to Ms Steenkamp’s family and make a sizeable donation to a charity that helps victims of domestic violence. While they’re at it, perhaps they can learn how to be decent human beings instead of money-hungry ghouls.

And the nominees are…

As the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, I have a new badge on the blog. That’s right – I’ve been nominated for “Best New Blog” in the MAD blog awards! Before any confusion arises, MAD stands for “Mum And Dad”, it’s not a comment on my mental state. ;-)

Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you to the people who nominated me. I’m extremely flattered (not to mention utterly gobsmacked!) and although I feel completely undeserving I’m very happy that people think so much of my writing. Thank you.

Confusion in Cymru

I love Wales. I went to university in Cardiff aged 18 and lived in south Wales until I was almost 30 (apart from 8 months in Sheffield while I studied for my MSc, and even then I spent a lot of weekends visiting friends and my now husband in Cardiff!). I met DH in Wales, he proposed in Wales. My daughter was born in Wales.

We moved away extremely reluctantly at the start of 2011 following our bankruptcy and the repossession of our home. DH and I were both desperately unhappy at having to leave but promised ourselves that we would return soon, even if it was only for a visit. Circumstances conspired against us however, and it’s only now that we’ve been able to come back for the first time, having saved up for almost 2 years in order to afford it.

So here we are. I have been unbearably excited for weeks, ever since we booked the cottage we’re staying in. I even cried as I drove across the Severn bridge for the first time in 3 years and in a lot of ways it feels as though we’ve only been away a few weeks. But in other ways there is a yawning gulf between who I was when we left and who I am now. We have an extra child, for a start! DS was conceived and born in England; although this beautiful country was home to DD, DH and I, he’s never seen it before. As well as this I feel like a completely different person, just a shadow of the confident, sociable woman I used to be. My physical appearance, my mental health, my path in life – these have all changed and none of them for the better.

Yesterday we met some old friends, most of whom DH and I have known since university. Although I was really looking forward to seeing them I was also dreading it because I’ve changed so much. I’m ashamed of who I am these days – an obese recluse who only seems able to engage with other people through blogging or on Twitter. In the end it was actually a great afternoon but it brought home to me just how different I am now and how I feel about myself.

This trip, this holiday, our long awaited return to Wales, was supposed to be a joyous occasion. DH and I have both suffered from hiraeth, that heartsick longing for home and Wales for which there isn’t really an equivalent in the English language. I hadn’t foreseen that being here would be so confusing and upsetting, that it would strike at the heart of who I am and how I perceive myself.

I am so unbelievably happy to be here, to have returned home to Wales even if only for a week. I’m enjoying taking the children to places that we used to go and it’s good to meet up with people that DD doesn’t remember and DS has never met. But I’m also sad because already I’m anticipating having to leave again; most of all I’m grieving for the life we used to have and for who I used to be. And I’m feeling all of these things at once.

It’s time to talk

Today, the 6th February 2014, is “time to talk” day. This is run by the charity Time To Change, which is led by both Mind and ReThink (mental health organisations). The idea behind today is to open up and be honest about mental health, to start a conversation and to help break down stigma. This is my contribution.

I’ve had mental health problems almost all my life. As a child I self-harmed and binged; I’ve had depression since my early teens. My current diagnoses are cyclothymia with underlying depression,and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). But what does this actually mean?

Cyclothymia is a mild form of bipolar disorder. Where most people’s mood averages out as a straight line with occasional fluctuations up or down, this is what my unmedicated moods look like:
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The psychiatrist who diagnosed me explained that cyclothymia often requires treatment with mood stabilisers as the hypomania (the highs) can be pretty disruptive. But because I have the peculiar combination of cyclothymia and depression, my base line is lower than most people’s. For example, at the moment I am a bit hypomanic. But instead of displaying the usual symptoms of hypomania I am what most people would consider to be normal. I’m enjoying playing with my children. I’m getting the housework done, I’m singing along to the radio and I’m able to talk to other parents in the school playground. I still find it hard to sit still without fiddling or fidgeting, my thoughts race and I constantly have new (usually impractical) ideas about what I want to do next. But for the most part I am “normal”.

Of course unfortunately this means that my low moods are lower than the average. When I’m in a trough I struggle to get out of bed, I struggle to interact with anyone and playing with the children is an almost unbearable ordeal. But this is also a kind of normal for me; this is what I’m like when I’m unmedicated and the depression strikes.

Cyclothymia isn’t just having hypomanic highs and depressed lows, though; there’s a reason it’s also known as “rapid cycling bipolar”. Although moods can last for days or even weeks, they can also change in the blink of an eye. Some days I can cover the full mood spectrum in a matter of hours, never knowing how I’m going to feel from one moment to the next. This isn’t in response to anything – I can be having a really good day and suddenly plunge into the depths of depression. It’s unsettling, not just for me but also my family.

Then there’s the anxiety. Mostly my anxiety focuses on my family – I live in perpetual terror that someone I love is in danger or about to die. If DH is late back from the shops he must have been run over. If the phone rings it’s obviously going to be DD’s school telling me she’s had a serious accident. At night I wake up repeatedly to check that 2yo DS is still breathing, and his recent surgery was almost more than I could bear.

The minor focus of my anxiety is quite common: I often struggle with social situations and talking to strangers, which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that I worked in the civil service for 6 years and used to present at high-level meetings and international conferences! But for now that’s how it is at the moment. I recently had to describe my social anxiety to a friend:

“Chatting to people at playgroups, in cafes, even the school run can be torture. When I have to speak to someone unfamiliar in a social situation my heartrate increases and my breathing gets shallow. My mouth goes dry and I feel as though my throat is closing up. If I can’t escape then I usually end up having a full-blown panic attack”.

Obviously this causes problems when it comes to having a social life of any kind! Although I sometimes manage to meet people for a casual coffee, in the last year I’ve only managed to go out with a group of friends once. Just once, to a local restaurant, and even then I could only stay for about an hour and a half before getting overwhelmed and having to leave.

So there you go. That’s me. Mood zipping around like a demented pinball and perpetually anxious. :-) I’m happy to answer any questions or comments that you may have, both here and in person if you know me. So come on – let’s talk.

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